To the casual observer, Japanese and British auto manufacturing is as different as chalk and cheese, sushi and spotted dick, driving your car to a location and arriving or having to push it there because several important bits have gone sproing. On one hand, there exists the same sort of joyless reliability you get from your toaster. On the other hand, you have cars filled with so much character, they leak it all over the ground. Oh hang on, that’s the oil.
But the two are closer than you think. Japan owes something of a debt to British motoring, because many early Japanese efforts were little more than rebadged English cars. Long before anybody thought about some kind of fire-breathing all-wheel-drive Skyline, Nissan was building the homely little Austin A50 under license. Moreover, consider the perfection of the Miata, which takes the spirit of the great British roadsters and makes just the tiniest tweak of not having the doors fall off every seven miles.
So here are three examples of the excellence of Britishness infused with Japanese martial prowess: a Hayabusa-powered Caterham, a Mini Cooper with an Integra Type-R swap, and a Ford Escort rally car with 9000rpm worth of S2000 motor. They’re here, they’re spectacular, and they’re going to save British motoring.
Nothing is forever in the automotive world, and if you’re a fan of British cars, you should probably be worried (and perhaps consider seeing a therapist). The pool of people who have the expertise to keep these occasionally cranky machines on the road is shrinking, and the average age of owners is rapidly approaching old-man-yells-at-cloud-of-steam levels. Just as the values of more common cars from the ’30s and ’40s continue to plummet because no one wants them, it’s entirely possible to imagine a world where British car enthusiasm has Brexited stage left.
But here’s something that doesn’t need to be explained to you by some tweedy looking bloke with greasy fingernails and a mustache like Nigel Mansell: the hobnail boot that thwacks you in the kidneys when you go second-to-third with a pull on the sequential box in a motorcycle-engined, four-wheeled coffin.
With a curb weight of around 1200lbs and about 250hp under your right foot, Curt Shephard’s 2004 Caterham Super 7 accelerates with sufficient violence to give you a stiff upper, uh, lip. The Hayabusa-sourced engine, bored to 1400ccs, screams towards 13000rpm in a frenzy, the tiny steering wheel translating terrified muscle twitching into instant changes in direction.
There exists a caffeinated, fortified wine called Buckfast, made in Devon and frequently used as an excuse by people arrested for repeatedly headbutting their neighbors. As in, “The Buckie made me do it.” That’s the Caterham Super 7, an ancient recipe spiked with an unreasonable amount of stimulant.
Shephard is a old hand at hill-climbs, track days, and autocross, but he uses his Super 7 for longer adventures. Last year, it even saw a considerable amount of gravel use, which is a level of lunacy that used to require at least a peerage.
“I drive it every day,” he said. I would too. After giving up coffee.
Next to it is Felix Yuen’s backdated JDM Mini Cooper, which somehow has a Honda B18C stuffed in its nose. When he removes the hood, it looks like a Jack Russell that’s half-swallowed a basketball.
The Japanese market received Minis–called Rover Minis–well into the 1990s. Yuen reports that Japanese car culture still reveres the little car, and that many of the fans go to great lengths to preserve them. “Because it costs more to pay the road tax on a Mini than a newer car,” he said, “You never see one that isn’t really well cared for.”
However, he also more than tripled the horsepower, flared out the fenders to swallow fat, small-diameter wheels, and dialled in a suspension that gives the Mini the ground clearance of a Corgi. It’s a little terrier of a thing, easily capable of yapping at the heels of Shephard’s Super 7 with an oddly appropriate Honda soundtrack.
That sound befits a purpose-built racing machine too, as it does with Dave Pledger’s Ford Escort rally car. Gone is the old 1600cc engine, replaced with the 2.0L jewel out of an S2000. Other upgrades were required to handle the power: with near-unobtanium replacement Escort rear differentials costing around $15,000, Pledger swapped in a Tacoma unit. He also rebuilt the rollcage to CASC spec, the original safety structure being made to pretty laissez-faire British standards.
Pledger is a self-taught mechanic, having learned the basics through necessity as a penurious student. “My car needed brakes, and they told me it was a $400 job,” he said, “I thought, well then I can’t drive.”
Inducted into the rallying life with a tilt at the Targa Newfoundland in a 1959 Mini, Pledger soon realized the wavy Maritime roads would need something with a little more forgiving suspension. He bought the Escort and campaigned it in 2013, where it promptly blew out its original rear differential. It’s all well and good for Paul Walker to jump one of these over a highway barrier in the movies, but real life is a little more harsh.
However, now the Escort is sorted and suited for battle, and Pledger’s been tightening the nut behind the wheel with stints at Dirtfish rally school. “I’d like to have one more go at Targa Newfoundland,” he said, “But my next goal is a gravel rally.”
The all-British Field Meet, a large British car gathering in Vancouver BC held May 19th this year, has a category for machines such as these. The modified class celebrates bending the rules a little – Shephard’s Caterham is a former class winner – and the section is always a crowd favorite. Even the purists don’t seem to mind.
Perhaps that’s because they recognize the Best of British in cars that carry a mixed lineage. The motorcycle-engined Caterham Super 7, handmade in Chemainus, BC by a former Can-Am racer, is just the sort of shed-built madness that put most of the sporting English marques on the maps. Pledger’s well-fettled racing machine lets an old warhorse get out in the dirt and go toe-to-toe with the modern machines that would usurp its title.
And Yuen’s Mini, built with youthful passion and resolve, is just the sort of car that original Mini fans would have been trying to build in the 1960s, wrenching away just trying to make their little cars as fast as possible. The mods may not be period-correct; the intention is.
To a generation that grew up building hot Honda Civics and drift-happy Nissan 240SXs, it turns out British car enthusiasm doesn’t need much of a translation. Bust your knuckles. Break parts. Make things faster. Go driving.